Koch Grants and Government Grants: A Difference

Christopher Freiman challenges academics who object to Koch grants on ethical grounds but are willing to accept government grants:

Many academics object to Koch grants but not government grants. As far as I can tell, the objections to the former apply with equal or greater force to the latter. Consider two:

1) The Kochs have committed injustices and accepting Koch money makes you complicit in those injustices, even if the funded project is wholly unrelated to them.

But of course the government has committed injustices; indeed, injustices far graver than anything the Kochs have been accused of (e.g. murdering people daily).  Furthermore, most of what people find objectionable about the Kochs is their lobbying efforts. Yet the government should also bear some responsibility for seeking and accepting the influence of Koch money in that case. If you accept money as part of your murder for hire business, you are at least as morally blameworthy as the buyer.

Freiman’s argument overlooks one relevant possibility*: Suppose that both government and the Kochs have committed serious injustices. What distinguishes them is that government gets its funding primarily through taxation, that is, by force; the Charles Koch Foundation generally does not. Given this, a recipient of government funding has already been forced to pay into the revenue stream that funds her grant; a recipient of Koch funding has not. Put somewhat differently, taxation is constitutive of, and compounds, the injustice of government injustice. Government doesn’t just commit injustice (though it does); it performs unjust acts (full stop), and then forces both citizens and non-citizens to pay for the injustice it commits, thereby committing a second, second-order injustice. In general, Koch-type injustices exemplify the first, not the second type of injustice.

Suppose that injustice demands compensation, and that coercive injustice can be met with acts of defensive or compensatory counter-force. If so, it’s open to the recipient of government funding to accept it as compensation for injustices done to the recipient. That’s not (generally) true of recipients of Koch funding. Special cases aside, Koch isn’t forcing anyone to fund injustice. So it would be inappropriate to accept Koch money as compensation for such injustices. But government certainly is forcing everyone within its domain to pay for injustice. In taking government money, the recipient is making a reasonable attempt to take back (a small part of) what was coercively taken from her–and not just taken from her, but taken for nefarious ends. One couldn’t accept Koch funding on morally comparable grounds.

It’s not clear to me how many people actually do accept government funding as rectification for past injustices. And if you did, it seems to me that you’d be obliged to do so in good faith: you could permissibly take the money as compensation only if you were willing to say in public that you were taking it for that reason. But assuming the right motivation and follow-through by the would-be recipient, the distinction between government grants and Koch grants is there, as is the distinctive reason for taking the former.

I don’t mean to suggest, incidentally, that the “argument from compensation” is an all-things-considered argument in favor of accepting grant money from the government. Personally, I try to steer clear of both government and Koch funding. But that’s a complex matter we needn’t discuss here. All I mean to suggest is that the argument from compensation meets Freiman’s challenge head-on: it differentiates the one kind of funding from the other, and provides a plausible (if defeasible) reason for accepting the one but not the other. That’s all my argument needs, and why his argument fails.


*To the best of my knowledge, a version of the argument for reparations (as stated in the post) was first made by Ayn Rand, in her essay “The Question of Scholarships,” reprinted in The Voice of Reason. Rand aside, Robert Nozick famously argues for reparations for past injustices in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and, also (less famously) for compensation for preventive detention by government. I’ve discussed Nozick’s arguments here, and here, and by implication, here and here.

As Roderick Long points out in the comments of one of the preceding posts, Murray Rothbard makes arguments for reparations as well. It’s not clear to me whether Rothbard would accept the reasoning I present above.  As Roderick puts it:

See also Rothbard’s “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle” in the 15 June 1969 issue of Libertarian Forum, where he discusses how to apply principles of restitution to state universities and to the military-industrial complex. (And the other two pieces in that issue, one by Rothbard and one by Hess, are also relevant.)

Rothbard’s approach is not precisely the same as Nozick’s, but it can certainly be used equally to make a case for reparations.

I’ve also written about this issue here, and more glancingly here and here.

(For related issues, see Carl Watner on Indian land claims.)

4 thoughts on “Koch Grants and Government Grants: A Difference

  1. I see how sending money TO the Kochs (should anyone be so foolish as to do so) would count as complicity in their injustices. It’s less clear to me how accepting money FROM them so counts.

    “It’s not clear to me how many people actually do accept government funding as rectification for past injustices. And if you did, it seems to me that you’d be obliged to do so in good faith: you could permissibly take the money as compensation only if you were willing to say in public that you were taking it for that reason”

    I don’t see why. If you’re engaged in a war of rebellion against an oppressor, it’s legitimate to raid their treasury. There doesn’t seem to be any obligation to announce publicly that you’re the one who did it, or how, or what your plans are for doing it again in the future.

    If the oppressor is foolish enough to *give* money to you and your rebel band, thereby saving you the work of raiding the treasury, I don’t see how the principle changes.

    “Personally, I try to steer clear of both government and Koch funding.”

    Well, I first met you at a Koch-funded summer-long gig hosted by a government school, so ….

    “What distinguishes them is that government gets its funding primarily through taxation, that is, by force; the Charles Koch Foundation generally does not.”

    It’a a matter of debate within libertarian circles to what extent the Koch fortune depends on government-granted privilege. But if a) that extent is great, then the Kochs *do* get their funding primarily through taxation, albeit indirectly, And if instead b) that extent is small, then their lobbying efforts would appear to be either b1) not very unjust or else b2) not very successful. What follows?

    On another note, the whole Koch funding strategy is a bit of a mystery to me. They throw money at people much more libertarian than they themselves are, AND at people much less libertarian than they themselves are. They also throw money at people (mostly scholars) far to the left of them, AND at people (mostly politicians) far to the right of them. They (or Charles K. anyway) sometimes attempt to exercise control over large institutions that they fund (though the control tends to be less a matter of ideological discipline and more a matter of imposing batshit-insane educational strategy — https://aaeblog.com/2008/05/05/shadow-of-the-kochtopus/ ), but their attempts to control individuals that they fund — whether the politicians or the scholars — appear to be minimal to nonexistent (re the latter, I refer to the fact that the Kochs are constantly giving interviews deploring the right-wing policies of the politicians they’ve funded — unless that’s all an act?).

    And I’m not sure what the intended ideological payoff was of David Koch’s funding a pair of fountains in front of the Met. (Although these fountainheads are named after him, he apparently didn’t ask for them to be so, so it doesn’t seem to have been intended as publicity, at least to that extent.)

    Relatedly, an interesting piece by Jesse W., from a decade ago: https://reason.com/2010/08/31/the-cold-crisp-taste-of-koch/

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    • I see how sending money TO the Kochs (should anyone be so foolish as to do so) would count as complicity in their injustices. It’s less clear to me how accepting money FROM them so counts.

      I think it could. Let me set aside the Kochs for a minute, and just speak hypothetically.

      1) Imagine that an organization had a covert agenda of some kind, but wanted to conceal that agenda by conspicuously supporting a large, ideologically diverse set of beneficiaries, when what it really wanted to do was to favor a proper subset within that set. To accept their money under those circumstances is to allow yourself to be treated as a means to the effectuation of their scheme. Once you know that this is the case, you become complicit. If you suspect it, and make no inquiries, you are arguably complicit in a different way.

      2) Imagine that an organization had a morally problematic (or better yet, a clearly immoral) agenda with little support among respectable people. In order to gain that support, the organization begins to shower respectable people with money to burnish its image by association with them. (As in: “Well, if Roderick Long is associated with Organization X, how bad can it be? What’s good enough for Roderick Long is good enough for me!”) The organization relies on the cupidity of these supposedly respectable people, who take the money without qualms. It then goes on to promote its problematic agenda with their indirect quasi-support. Again, if you took money under those circumstances, I think you’d be allowing yourself to be made a means to an immoral end, which is itself immoral.

      I don’t know whether (1) or (2) really applies to the Koch Foundation. I’ve never been exercised enough about Koch (at least for these reasons) to do any real research into them. But the Ayn Rand Society under Allan Gotthelf self-consciously employed (2), which I found objectionable. The Anthem Foundation employs (1).

      Those examples aside, the idea of a front organization is familiar enough. Once you know that X is a front organization, I think it becomes immoral to accept money from X, unless you’re doing so for subversive purposes.

      If you’re engaged in a war of rebellion against an oppressor, it’s legitimate to raid their treasury. There doesn’t seem to be any obligation to announce publicly that you’re the one who did it, or how, or what your plans are for doing it again in the future.

      Yes, if you’re literally engaged in warfare. But I don’t think we’re literally at war with the United States Government. Nor do I think it’s literally at war with us. My proviso was intended to apply to activists engaged in resistance short of literal guerilla warfare. On the other hand, if I were advising Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, I’d say: take any money they give you, full stop, and leave the matter there. But that’s because Palestinians are under military occupation, and a military occupation is literally a state of war.

      Incidentally, I was allowing for the possibility of explaining one’s reasons ex post facto, not stating them up front (which might imperil ever getting the grant).

      Well, I first met you at a Koch-funded summer-long gig hosted by a government school, so ….

      LOL, true. I was too naive and ignorant at the age of 24 to know that IHS was a Koch-funded gig. To the extent that I did, I didn’t really know what “Koch-funded gig” meant. That was also early enough in the Reign of Koch that, Walter Grinder aside, very few people knew what “Koch-funded gig” meant. As far as I could tell at the time, “Koch-funded gig” just seemed to mean that David Nott was always around talking about “metrics,” and inexplicably wearing a suit and tie in hot weather. I think I was too busy negotiating the text of the Nicomachean Ethics and the troubled waters of my romantic life to see the larger picture. (Plus ca change…I realize that “too busy with NE and girl troubles” is probably an elastic excuse in my case).

      It’a a matter of debate within libertarian circles to what extent the Koch fortune depends on government-granted privilege. But if a) that extent is great, then the Kochs *do* get their funding primarily through taxation, albeit indirectly, And if instead b) that extent is small, then their lobbying efforts would appear to be either b1) not very unjust or else b2) not very successful. What follows?

      Well, it’s not a matter of debate that government gets its fortune through government-granted privilege. So it seems to me that there’s that difference from the outset: there is a much, much clearer case for taking government largesse on grounds of monetary compensation than there is in the case of the Koch Foundation.

      Even if (a) is true, the causality is very indirect. So the question remains: how does an individual candidate for a grant demonstrate that the money she’s getting from Koch is money that was taken from her by Koch? I don’t doubt that it’s possible to do that; my point is that it’s a bit of a stretch, and would take some doing.

      That said, I’m skeptical that (a) is true in the relevant sense. Yes, I suppose, Koch engages in lobbying, and its fortune depends on government-granted privilege. But is it unique in that respect? Whose fortune doesn’t depend on government-granted privilege in this country?

      Suppose I need money, and I ask for a loan from someone who’s taken the mortgage deduction on their home. Does that count? Same example, but suppose that I take a personal loan from someone who has a particularly zealous accountant and takes lots of tax deductions. Am I effectively taking a loan from the government? That seems implausible. I won’t iterate examples from personal loans up to corporations seeking to take advantage of the tax or regulatory structure, but I think the same basic logic applies. An entity taking advantage of the government’s tax/regulatory structure is still a private entity taking advantage of government’s tax/regulatory structure. It’s not an arm of government itself.

      Yes, if you get to the level of the Trump organization, I can see where one’s fortune is so causally dependent on government privilege that there’s little difference between that private organization and government. But otherwise, the connection seems too attenuated and too ubiquitous to be all that significant or distinctive. My university, Felician, engaged in quite a lot of lobbying. Felician’s president spent more time in Washington and Trenton than she did on campus (which, I suspect, is why, after her departure, the Trustees installed a former government official as president). Does that mean that when I accepted a research fellowship from the university, doing so was indistinguishable from accepting one from the government? Considering the role of government money in both health care and higher education, (a) ends up collapsing the distinction between a government grant and a grant from, say, Kaiser Permanente or a private university. But that strikes me as implausible.

      If something like (b) is true, then one couldn’t accept Koch money as compensation for past injustice. There are no relevant injustices to justify the taking of compensation.

      My own view is that the truth lies somewhere between (a) and (b), but closer to (b).

      On another note, the whole Koch funding strategy is a bit of a mystery to me.

      I agree, and that’s why I mostly avoid them. I tend to avoid people whose behavior I find inexplicable. I also find that such people tend to find my behavior inexplicable. (Lack of transparency is also problematic.)

      The last time I dealt with someone from Koch, we found ourselves in this bind. It was an exasperating waste of time, and it took place at 10 am on a weekday, which is my peak hour of productivity and not when I want to be disturbed by someone trying to give me money for reasons that make no fucking sense.

      To elaborate: Someone from Koch called me during office hours a few years ago, when I was still at Felician, offering to fund some kind of free market academic program there, and asking if I’d be willing to head it. I tried to explain to them that Felician wasn’t the place for a program of that sort, and anyway, my workload didn’t permit me to run another program “on the side.” I tried to hint that if they had money to throw around, there were probably better uses for it than adding another line to Felician’s budget, but they weren’t interested in hearing that part of what I had to say. The message I was trying to convey was not all that complicated–“fuck Felician and give the money directly to me”– but it didn’t seem to get through. This is not the kind of thing I want to deal with at 10 am on a Tuesday. So my grudge against Koch is somewhat different from the usual one. Yet it remains a serious grudge, for all that. Hence my avoidance of them.

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  2. I just read your 2008 blog post on the Kochtopus, which I hadn’t read before:

    https://aaeblog.com/2008/05/05/shadow-of-the-kochtopus/

    I certainly agree with your take, but have to add a bit of an indignant postscript. In 1997, people at IHS invited me to apply for a Claude Lambe Fellowship at a time in my career when I desperately could have used the money. I applied in 1997, and was rejected. Then I applied in 1998, and was rejected. Then I applied again in 1999, and was rejected. Finally, I wrote to their program officer at the time, John Moser, to ask why I was being rejected. The answer I got was that the committee making the decision felt that (a) it was unlikely I would finish my dissertation, so that funding me was a bad bet, and (b) it was thought that my intellectual stance was “too Randian,” hence too far outside of the mainstream of analytic philosophical thought, and not what IHS wanted to support.

    I’ve had dealings with IHS since then, but somewhat in the spirit of a divorced couple that resolves to remain civil despite the aftermath of the divorce. The truth is that I’ve never gotten over the WTF quality of that letter.

    Granted, (a) was a judgment call. Yes, I ended up finishing my dissertation without their help, but I could see why they might have thought I wouldn’t. Of course, part of the reason I was asking for a fellowship in the first place was to get the help I needed to finish. But fine, let’s just set this issue aside.

    How, though, does one process (b)? Yes, my dissertation–on the relationship of epistemic foundationalism to the project of providing a foundation for ethics–had a Randian element to it. I never hid that, and no one at Notre Dame had an objection to my doing what I was doing (even if they had objections to the arguments I made). But of all the Randians out there, was I really among the most fanatical, close-minded, or dogmatic to merit dismissal as being “too Randian”? How many orthodox Randians went around flaunting their anti-Zionist credentials? How many left the Objectivist organizations to which they belonged because they opposed the anti-welfare-state activism that those organizations were engaged in? The irony is that IHS had no problem funding ARI-based Objectivists who were far more orthodox than me.

    But what offended me most was something mentioned in your post. On the one hand, IHS used Rand’s name as both a marketing tool and a metric. They drew students in by invoking Rand, and they tallied mentions of Rand by students, treating positive mentions of her as a proxy for a pro-free-market outlook. But when it came to funding someone who mentioned Rand a couple of times in his dissertation, that inexplicably ended up being a no-no. I often wondered whether that was because I was never all that free-market in the first place. I was attracted to the parts of Rand (epistemology, ethics) that stood at a distance from her advocacy of capitalism.

    Whatever the explanation, the disingenuousness still rankles.

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  3. I just read the Jesse Walker piece, which I also hadn’t read before. It’s interesting, but I don’t know how much mileage Koch-libertarians can get out of it. Yes, the Koch brothers funded some left-wing causes, but once you advocate the abolition of Social Security, federal regulation, welfare, and the public schools, it’s not mysterious why center-left intellelctuals will continue to think of you as right-wing radicals. You’ll simply become “right-wing radicals willing to take a few left-wing detours.” But the ultimate destination will justifiably strike people as right-wing.

    That said, I’d like to read Ed Clark’s white papers advocating “a liberal-friendly, gradualist approach to shrinking the state,” along with the “suggestion that welfare need not be cut until unemployment is eliminated.” That stance anticipates “bleeding heart libertarianism” by decades. But I think most mainstream journalists would regard it as a bit pie-in-the-sky.

    There’s a trade-off there between cuts to welfare and the elimination of unemployment. If it’s unrealistic to predict the literal elimination of unemployment, realism dictates that cuts to welfare will come ahead of the elimination of unemployment. If we fast-forward to the pandemic of 2020, it’s not clear that anyone on the Left would have welcomed the state of affairs Clark was trying to usher in–the absence of welfare (including, I suppose, unemployment benefits and disability) in a context where unemployment unpredictably shoots up. So it seems to me that there’s less there than meets the eye.

    That said, I was surprised to discover (a few years back) that the Koch brothers funded the recent PBS series on Vietnam, and that David Koch was a major funder for many famous institutions in liberal New York City, among them Lincoln Center, Sloan-Kettering, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and the Dinosaur Wing of the Natural History Museum.

    https://globaljusticeecology.org/pbss-the-vietnam-war-designed-to-manufacture-consent/

    https://nypost.com/2014/03/16/loopy-liberals-freak-over-koch-brothers-100m-hospital-gift/

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